“I can feel the bone below, but nothing above,” the surgeon reported, his probing fingers deep inside the thigh of a Congolese boy.
Bone shattered when the bullet struck and mushroomed inside the boy’s leg. Sadly, gunshot wounds are not uncommon in Northeast Congo (DRC).
This is Lord’s Resistance Army territory – the rebel group infamous for recruiting and abducting child soldiers. Raiding militias maim their victims in unspeakable ways and hack to death the elderly and infants as though they were vermin. Forty-eight women are raped each hour in the DRC according to a recent report in the American Journal of Public Health – 1,152 women every day.
On the fringe of this violence, a humanitarian medical organization serves a field hospital by staffing the emergency room and operating theater. Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) supports their work with airplane shuttles twice a week.
“We wouldn’t be here without air support,” says the project coordinator. “The roads are too difficult and dangerous. Without the plane, we couldn’t get our people out, should there be trouble.”
Back in the operating theater, the surgeon removes a quarter-sized piece of femur. “We need x-rays to see what’s going on in there,” he says to the group of Congolese medical staff observing and assisting him. “Otherwise, this may never heal. And if the bone becomes infected, there is little we can do to save him.”
But the hospital has no x-ray equipment. The patient must be airlifted to Bunia, the frontier town where MAF is based.
The 10-minute drive to the airstrip winds through a typical rainforest village revealing nothing of the fear that must linger in the back of residents’ minds. Smoke rises from cooking fires. People tend small gardens. Chickens scurry in the African dust.
The MAF Cessna Caravan appears over the treetops as the pilot surveys the grass strip for obstacles and appraises the windsock before landing. After coming to a stop near a zinc roof building, a cabin full of passengers descends the plane’s stairs into equatorial steam.
Within minutes the wounded boy, his wound cleaned and freshly dressed, is lifted into the cabin. With him is traveling a woman in a leg cast and a new load of medical workers for the 50-minute flight to Bunia.
As the plane lifts off, the hum of the engine soon dissolves into the sound of forest insects. Another day draws to a close in this river village. Tonight, hippos will graze in the nearby soccer field.
And tonight a boy’s life, and possibly his leg, will be saved.